Like so many others,I was overwhelmed with emotion when watching the recently released Google advertisement,Reunion,which depicts the intense feelings still experienced as a result of Partition. I thought immediately of my father-in-laws fondly recounted tales of childhood friends from Agra,whom he had had to leave behind when the family migrated to Karachi. How ironic that this ad was released just before Jawaharlal Nehrus birthday (November 14). Did he know that the tryst with destiny he spoke about 66 years ago would condemn millions of Indians and Pakistanis to being cut off from their loved ones and birthplaces for years to come?
While the advertisement was beautifully produced and incredibly touching,my sadness was mixed with anger as I thought about the fantasy world of India-Pakistan travel that this Google ad perpetuates. If only it were so simple to google India visa requirements,get a visa so quickly,and show up at our loved ones door for a birthday surprise. If only our parents and grandparents could visit their birthplace,school or childhood sweet shop. If only I could have taken my spouse who was born in Pakistan to meet my family,who live in India,just after our wedding here in the United States. A custom so dear to immigrant communities was sadly not possible for us because of the reality of India-Pakistan travel,far from the imagined reality that Google portrays.
The reality is that it is extremely difficult for Pakistanis to get visas to visit India. Currently,even if they get a visa,they are allowed only one month under the regulations,and the visa is restricted to certain Indian cities. The reality is that it is vastly easier and quicker for an American with no familial or historical ties to the subcontinent to receive an Indian visa than people who were born in India themselves.The revised regulations,under an agreement between the two countries on September 8,2012,state that Pakistanis will be allowed to visit up to five Indian cities. But my spouses application for four cities was rejected and only three were permitted in reality. Yes,my spouse has visited India,and I have gone to Pakistan. Weve had extremely lovely visits and treasure the limited time with each others families every time. We do this even though we are treated like criminals by the government authorities,endure gruelling police reporting,are asked to pay bribes,suffer at the hands of arbitrary practices that are not in accordance with written regulations,and wait more than two years for the chance to travel to each others countries for a simple reunion with each others families. And were the lucky ones we know many Indians and Pakistanis whose visa applications are still languishing,without any action by,or communication from,the respective embassies.
On this most recent visit to India,we visited my father-in-laws childhood gali in the purana sheher of Agra,while he provided us with directions from Karachi to find the house he grew up in. It was the experience of a lifetime,one that we both shall treasure forever,but I clearly heard the nostalgia in his voice as he navigated us around landmarks that were dear to him as a young boy. The decades of intense pain felt on both sides of the border in the years since Partition have made us,as a people,avoid this topic,or rewrite history rather than heal the heartache. And this phenomenon has had a damaging effect,as it has translated into unforgiving policies and harsh visa regulations.
Google has given us an opportunity to start a dialogue about these feelings,and use that dialogue to advance our policies. It is my sincere wish that as we watch and feel for the reunited childhood friends in the Google ad,we use this moment as an opportunity for greater understanding about the continued heartache endured by so many Indians and Pakistanis such as myself and my spouse. The Indian and Pakistani governments can shift their stances on visa requirements by allowing long-term visas to people with families in India. They could extend to Indian and Pakistani cross-border spouses the same rights and privileges granted to spouses from other countries married to Indian or Pakistani citizens. They could also make police reporting on arrival and departure the exception rather than the rule,open more consulates in major cities and increase opportunities for student visas to give rise to greater understanding between the two countries.
The writer,an Indian based in the US,advocates for the relaxation of visa regulations between India and Pakistan